What are your grades reporting?

I have been teaching long enough to have made every mistake possible, so I am not judging anyone in this blog. It is not too late to change.

It is this time of the year, when I get frustrated with meaningless grading. After two weeks completed, my students are setting the tone for their level of academic acceptance. For those students that are not off to a good start, I want to fix the problem before it becomes a norm.

My first step is to visit with the students I am concerned about. Since I do not have a strong rapport with them yet, this is just a casual visit. My next step is to check on their historical grades. Unless a previous teacher used Standards Based Grading (or something similar), often all I get from a previous report is what a student (or parent) accepts as their minimum grade.

My third step is to check on their current progress in their other courses. This is where it truly shakes me. I hope my students know what 100% means. Unfortunately, most of my students have more than 100% in at least one course. Again, don’t get me wrong. I have offered extra credit in the past to get “parent notification” returned or something similar. I often see 200% or higher on my student grades at this point. Whoa, I got off topic.

Since I was converted to Objective Based Grading, I see the ridiculousness of extra credit, based on bringing supplies or behavioral practices. I had to see and hear about Standards Based Grading for about three years before I implemented what I call Objective Based Grading. Since being converted, I am flabbergasted at what little my past grading practices reported.

Chapter 2 –  83%

What does that even mean?????? Even if you put the title of the chapter on that grade (Chapter 2 Polynomials), it still has very little meaning. How much of that grade is based on assignments, which could be anyone’s work (or with huge amount of outside help). And don’t get me started on extra credit again… OK, confession: I sometimes give extra points on an in-class project when a student demonstrated mathematical understanding beyond what was expected. You can even put a standard in your grading, that is based on something other than mathematical understanding, and I believe that is acceptable, if it is not a huge part of a final grade. The problem occurs when a mathematical standard has a grade influenced by behavior or unrelated extra credit.

If a student’s grade were based on assessments (with integrity), and broke down into standards or objectives, they may have meaning.

  • Add and Subtract Polynomials
  • Multiplying a monomial by a polynomial
  • Multiplying a binomial by a binomial

If grade report had metrics assigned to topics such as these, an observer would know how a student performed at that point in time, on those objectives. Now that I have colleagues that are reporting grades with meaning, I can look back at a student’s previous course and see what math topics they excelled in and with what topics they struggled.

Now grade reporting has meaning. My apologies to all my previous students and parents that just “received” a standard letter grade, claiming that it was that simple.

It seems that over time, it always took me three or four times of hearing a great idea before I implemented it. If you do not already have grades with meaning, please speed the process up and make the change. Do some research, find something you can justify within your school system and jump in. At the very minimum, please break your individual assessment grade (Chapter 2 Test) into multiple grades with meaningful titles.

I use a grading rubric on each objective on an assessment and put multiple grades in the grade program each time my students take an assessment. For the skeptics and the teachers that worry that this is time-consuming, using this rubric to grade assessments is much faster for me than traditional grading. I need to plug my reporting into a traditional system and my parents and students want a nice neat percent (because that has meaning for them), so I like the 10 point rubric.

Here are links to my grading rubric (it may not be perfect but improves every year) and several examples of objectives used by @jwbrackney and myself.



At this point in my career I know these things (and my #1TMCThing).

Two years ago I came back from TMC15 and had a clear vision on what I needed to do in my classroom. Here is my blog from then: At this point in my life I know these things.

After teaching 35 years, I really evaluated what I was doing and how it worked with the current students. I had updated many of my class activities but was far from where I needed to be. Here I am two years later and here is the report on how I did on my beliefs.

VRG – Most days last year I greeted each student with a random card that assigned them a seat in a group of three. The greeting was valuable and the students familiarity with each other paid huge dividends. The collaboration as they were learning was also valuable. I will continue to do this.

VNPS – Immediately after I returned from TMC15 I started planning whiteboards on every available wall in my classroom. I also pushed my math colleagues to do the same. Most of the math classrooms in my high school now have whiteboards everywhere. I used VNPS on a regular basis the past two years. Students work together at the VNPS and the conversations are amazing. VNPS ARE A MUST IN EVERY MATH CLASSROOM!

Last year I implemented Standards Based Grading (SBG) in my Algebra 1 and Honors Algebra 2 classes. My grade reports went from meaningless to reporting strengths and weaknesses of my students. I also opened my assessments to retakes and the true purpose of what we are doing in our schools. If learning is our goal, we must give multiple opportunities to learn. SBG might seem like a big change, so you can call it Objective Based Grading and just change the names of your assessment to the objectives they are assessing. Instead of one grade, each of my assessments have 4-5 grades with objective names. Here is how each objective is scored on my assessments. SBG IS AN ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED CHANGE, IF YOU ARE NOT ALREADY DOING IT.

Desmos and Desmos Activities have changed how my students and I look at learning mathematics. The process of learning is so much more efficient when you use the right tools. As a Desmos Fellow, I learned how to build Desmos Activities that are purposeful and reach all levels of students. DESMOS HAS AND WILL CONTINUE TO CHANGE HOW MATHEMATICS IS STUDIED BY TEACHERS AND STUDENTS.

I would like to apologize to the over 3500 students that had to sit through their first day of the year listening to me read rules and procedures. I know by the end of the first day they couldn’t remember which rules went with which class and wanted to poke their eyes out. The past two years I made sure that I was doing activities the first week that helped students understand what learning looked and felt like. I made sure it was an activity that was math related and students were learning about each other and I was learning about them. My favorites are Noah’s Arc, The Taxman and Sum 31 Card Challenge. And, Name Tents from @saravdwerf  are a must for the first week. These are ideas I got from various people at TMC and the Twitter community.

I also attended TMC16 and TMC17, which generated all kinds of other things I need to think about and implement when they are needed. All the ideas expressed here have kept me young and my classroom fresh. Thank you all that have contributed to these changes.

I am still working on journaling in my classroom. I am going to make this my #1TMCThing. I know it is a great thing, I just need to work out the details. My plan is to do this electronically with either Google Classroom or some other electronic form.

A Year in the Past

One more year is almost in the past and I want to reflect on what I have done differently and what/who changed my teaching profession for the better.

This was the third year for me using Twitter, the second year of TMC and the first year of being a Desmos Fellow. I bring that up because there were many things that shaped me as a math teacher over the years, but these are three things that are currently guiding me in my profession.

Twitter: I started teaching 36+ years ago in a small high school as the only math teacher and struggled to find mentors. The state of Montana has been constantly struggling to get enough teachers in the rural areas, and then supporting them with mentor programs because of the distance to other schools. Now I teach in a larger school with 12 great math teachers in the same hall. We still rely on innovative ideas from the Internet. My single biggest source of new ideas is my Twitter community. That community started with #mtbos and @tmathc. The amazing part of my teaching career, started trying to find someone locally to collaborate with and I have recently collaborated with people literally around the world via Twitter on math techniques and lessons.

Twitter Math Camp: Early in my Twitter life I discovered a group that was meeting during the summer to make connections with each other via Twitter and an annual meeting. I followed their tweets that first year and became determined that I would be at the next summer meeting, no matter what it took. I attended TMC15 with a colleague and brought home more ideas than I could carry. Besides attending morning sessions on Desmos, I brought home ideas about VNPS (vertical non-permanent surfaces)  and VRG (visual random grouping) from the amazing Alex Overwijk @alexoverwijk. These two ideas changed the way that I taught. I implemented VNPS as soon as my classes started in the fall. Not only did it change how I taught, but the majority of my math colleagues in my building now also use VNPS on a regular basis. If you are not familiar with VNPS, research now and put it into practice ASAP. The amount of formative assessing I can do, and the student collaboration that takes place during VNPS is clearly superior to anything that I have ever done in my classroom. I now greet my students at the door and give them a random card to assign seats in groups of three. This is called VRG because students know two things, they are assigned randomly rather than some form of teacher manipulation and their partners are just for that day. I tried this mid-year last year and was not as successful. Starting at the beginning of the year, students haven’t already formed many opinions about their classmates and get to know a lot of student early in the year. I attended TMC16 and will be at TMC17!

Desmos: If you teach anything that involves graphing, you MUST use Desmos. Between the graphing tool for graphing and discovery, to the classroom activities that you can use, it will change the way you look at math and working in your classroom. If you haven’t seen Desmos or didn’t get the Desmos bug, go there NOW! desmos.com and/or teacher.desmos.com. I also have had the great fortune to be invited to be a part of an amazing group called the Desmos Fellowship. The great ideas just keep flowing from the creative Desmos Team and the fellowship group. Desmos gave me the opportunity to personally meet all these amazing people in November at the Desmos headquarters. These two groups are changing the way math is taught and how we look at math education.

Sub categories (but also important): 

  • Backwards Brain Bicycle: Thanks to @saravdwerf and @msfierst for the inspiration to build a Backwards Brain Bicycle and use it in my school to demonstrate perseverance with numerous side lessons. Here is my story: Backwards Brain Bicycle
  • Name Tents: These are not your usual name tent and you MUST do this to start your next year. Once again with great influence from TMC and @saravdwerd my colleagues and I used Name tents during the first week, with amazing results. Click on the link above for more information.
  • M Cubed: This is a local beginning to create a community like TMC. Thanks to@HilaryRisser we had the first annual event in Montana and I hope many to follow. Here is this past year’s link.
  • Standards Based Grading: I actually use Objective Based Grading, but with the same philosophy. I used it in my Algebra 1 classes this past Fall and will incorporate it in my Honors Algebra 2 classes this Spring.

It has been a really great year and next year will surely be better because of the wonderful math communities that allow me to live in their world! Thank you!

Objective Based Grading

I am not using Standards Based Grading but Objective Based Grading. This is definitely a movement in the right direction. This is the best thing about grading that I have done in 35 years. I got all of the basic ideas and lots of encouragement to change from my daughter (@jwbrackney), who also teaches math. I don’t grade everything the way that she does, but the philosophy is the same.

I identify objectives for each unit that I am teaching. When I grade quizzes and tests I used a different color hi-liter for each objective. After making comments and corrections with the hi-liters I use a rubric to determine a level of understanding for each objective (Grading Rubric). So a quiz will generally have 2-3 grades on it, based on the number of objectives assessed. A test will have 4-6 grades on it based on the number of objectives assessed.

Each objective gets quizzed after they are covered and then tested at the end of the unit. The objective quiz grades get reported on Powerschool (our district online grade program) and counted as part of the student’s grade until the unit test. At the end of a unit objective test grades get recorded. At that time I exempt the quiz grades. It still shows for student and parents to see, but they don’t count as part of the final grade.

So here is what my gradebook looks like at this point in the semester…


I am absolutely convinced this is a movement in the right direction. My grades mean so much more. It is easy to identify what a student does well and what they still need to work on. I also do retakes on objectives after they are tested.

Last semester I tried to not put a grade on homework, but with my freshman in Algebra 1 they are convinced there is no reason to do an assignment if they don’t get a grade for it. This semester I went to grading random homework assignments. I hope to one day have grade just based on assessments. One step at a time.